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Lighting Up Her Life With Digital Design

08 Sep 2017


Vanessa Ho (left) was part of a small team that created an interactive light installation (photos on right) as part of her Interactive and Digital Media course. Volunteering for the technically-challenging project taught her the value of keeping her mind open to new possibilities and learning.

Vanessa Ho completed two major international light festivals and is working as a web designer, quite the feat for the girl who once hated maths and science.

When Vanessa Ho applied to study in the polytechnic, her top pick was mass communications, a natural choice due to her interest in the arts and media.

But with a score of 17 points at the O-Levels, she got one of her least preferred choices instead - Interactive and Digital Media at Nanyang Polytechnic. The course ranked 10th out of her 12 choices.

A course which was big on programming and coding was not something the former arts student had thought of attending.

“I have always preferred humanities because there is actually a story behind the subject. I didn’t like subjects like science because it doesn't really teach you – the way it was presented in class anyway – how concepts are related to real life,” she said.

Instead of opting to switch courses, she psyched herself up and decided to try something completely different.

“I wasn't exactly very disappointed that I got one of my last choices in my list,” recalled Vanessa, explaining why she stuck to the course. “What I felt at that point was wanting to find out more about the course that I got into, and that I was looking forward to what was about to come.”

Her positive outlook helped her stay engaged in her studies, which proved to be the right choice. After three years of studying design and programming, the 21-year-old is now a web designer, creating websites for big corporations and organisations.

And despite her lack of technical background, she took part and excelled in two major lighting design events, one held at Marina Bay Sands and the other in China.

“Yes, I feel lucky now looking back,” she shared. She turned disappointment into a dream job.

The one who put her up hand

After about two years of learning about electrical circuits, web design and coding in the classroom, Vanessa got a chance to test all the skills she had learnt so far and apply it in the real world.

Towards the end of 2015, her school issued an invitation to students in her course to take part in a light design art festival.

Mr Craig Neo, a lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic, was looking for final-year students who were keen to learn new concepts and apply them at the iLight Marina Bay art festival.

The only catch was that it did not count towards fulfilling the course requirements.

“It was an extra set of duties and not part of the course. It is also a very stressful and high-pressure experience but one in which students could learn a lot,” he said.

Only two students put up their hands. Vanessa was one of them.

She had already participated in an earlier event, the Guangzhou Light Festival.  An annual affair, the festival brings together students from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and Nanyang Polytechnic to collaborate on a lighting design installation.

She worked with a team of Singapore and Chinese students for the 25 metre by 25 metre mega installation at Guangzhou.

Her main role in the project then was to develop a website which would promote interactivity with the lighting display. She helped to design a website that allowed users to post pictures of themselves on the installation.

But the iLight Marina Bay art festival was a different proposition from the Guangzhou Light Festival.

While the Guangzhou effort involved working in a big team, there was only a small team for iLight, which meant that all three members had to take a hands-on approach, from programming sensors to soldering circuits.

This was one part of the project she did not quite relish, Vanessa admitted with a sheepish grin.

“I used to also want to skip design and technology lessons as you have to build stuff and use the soldering iron. It's quite scary, you can get electric shocks from doing the work.”

What made her change her mind? “Skills are one thing, you need the skills to do it, but it's also how motivated you are and how much perseverance you have,” she said.

“I want to be mentally stronger, so that I am prepared to take more stress. I just didn't want to limit myself.”

Light and shadows

The theme for the iLight Marina Bay art festival was “In Praise of Shadows”, with the art installations revolving around the use and play of shadows.

Vanessa’s team wanted to build a wall of lights that would be able to produce shadows based on the movement of the person standing in front of it.

The idea seemed simple but consisted of several difficult tasks, including having to build a wall from scratch, programming a motion sensor and installing the lights.

The installation took two months to prepare and two weeks of working late into the night to set up.

But when it was complete and she saw dozens of strangers interacting with the display, she felt a thrill of excitement.

“Too many to count. They kept coming and coming,” she said, her face lighting up. “It was quite an achievement.”

Having done her first major piece of lighting design work, Vanessa plans to do more of such events in the future and she does not rule out doing it as a job.

For now, though, she wants to learn as much as she can as she works in a web design firm and hones her skills as a programmer and designer.

She believes her experiences in both the exhibition and the course have revealed new pathways to her, in areas she had never expected to be in.

“During the course, for me, every single day was like opening up your mind to more and different things,” she said.

The chance at applying her skills in the exhibitions will also be useful in her career in the future, she observed, noting that the tasks she was given were of a practical nature.

“Learning web design and programming actually exposes you to a lot of different things. You can for instance, create apps in the future.”

But most importantly, the digital media experience was, for Vanessa, a chance to do something different and shine.

“I like to bring myself to new challenges, and I think that as long as you never give up, you can do it,” she said.